How Your Favorite Christmas TV Specials Do More Than Celebrate The Season

This is how your favorite Christmas television shows work as both reminders of the holiday season and shopping sprees.


With the arrival of the holidays comes a few things: cookies, presents, family, and television specials. There's no greater time to be cozied up in front of your television like Christmas-time and it's worth looking at some of the holiday features you can watch this year. Or, more importantly, we can examine the messages particular holiday favorites espouse. Whether it's I Love Lucy's holiday reminder about their best episodes to Disney's promotion of itself, the television specials that re-air every year in December are pulling double duty: reminding you of the spirit of togetherness, and acting as advertisements for themselves.

A Christmas special that falls under the radar for many, short of the die-hard fans, involves America's favorite redhead. The I Love Lucy Christmas special generally airs on CBS, comprised of two episodes ⏤ one being "The I Love Lucy Christmas Show." These specials are all about reminding us of the enduring comedy of Lucille Ball and her cast of zany characters by having Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) celebrate the holiday season with their best friends, the Mertzses. While trimming the tree, the foursome reminisce about each other's wacky antics, leading to a clip show of several memorable Lucy moments. 

This episode, coupled with the other popular episode the network accompanies this Christmas special with, acts as a reminder that Lucy remains the Queen of Comedy. There isn't overt marketing for I Love Lucy merchandise, but the episodes act as a gateway for newcomers. Quickly catch up with the show, learn about it, and hopefully be enthralled enough to buy the show on DVD or Blu-ray. Already a fan? You can watch your favorites ⏤ without commercials, no less ⏤ by buying those same discs. 

Are Holiday TV Specials Simply Marketing In Disguise?
Lee Mendelson Films

This sense of advertising lineage continues with the 1965 holiday special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. In fact, it's almost ironic that Peanuts has a host of merchandise available to people considering the actual special's subject matter. Charlie Brown is upset by how commercial Christmas has become. His little sister is only concerned with getting "my fair share," while Lucy gleefully clinks a tin of nickels around, chirping about "that wonderful sound." The children around Charlie Brown are acting how society has made them: to appreciate presents and nothing more. Activities like ice-skating, chewing on snowflakes, and putting on a Christmas play are fun, but are more of a pathway to presents than anything else. So when Linus begins to recite the nativity story, it's meant to act as the moral of the special, a reminder of what Christmas is all about. But you can still buy tons of Peanuts ornaments ⏤ I have one that actually has Linus's scene on it ⏤ to decorate your Christmas tree.

Christmas specials aimed at children were extremely popular during Nickelodeon's heyday. One of the more intriguing ones is the 1996 Hey Arnold! episode, "Arnold's Christmas." The episode follows lead character Arnold as he attempts to find a Christmas present for his quiet, Vietnamese neighbor, Mr. Hyunh. Arnold's arch nemesis/secret admirer, Helga, is concerned with getting a coveted pair of Nancy Spumoni snow boots and in a twist ripped from O. Henry's short story, "Gift of the Magi," it's revealed that Helga's boots are what stands between Arnold giving Mr. Hyunh the ultimate Christmas present. "Arnold's Christmas" doesn't just eschew consumerism, but it also takes a fairly overt look at the fallout of Vietnam, with the reveal that Mr. Hyunh wishes to be reunited with the child he gave up during the war.

Hey Arnold!, though boasting with a string of merchandise in its heyday, never had the commercial insanity of another popular Nickelodeon show, RugratsRugrats' 1992 Christmas episode, "The Santa Experience" sees the gang go up to a mountain cabin and, in a move pulled from the I Love Lucy Christmas Special, have a real encounter with Old St. Nick. Rugrats was fairly egalitarian with its holiday specials, doing episodes around Jewish holidays like Passover and Hanukkah, as well as Kwanzaa. A Charlie Brown Christmas anti-commercial sentiment is ironic now as the wealth of merchandise around it has only developed over the last several decades. In comparison, Rugrats' marketing was already ubiquitous, yet it still is able to bridge the gap between telling a heartfelt story and acting as a marketing tool.  

Are Holiday TV Specials Simply Marketing In Disguise?
Pixar Animation Studios

Though no company is better at creating holiday magic and marketing through television quite like the Walt Disney Company. Using their patented brand of "synergy," Disney has created a series of holiday specials all with the sole goal of marketing themselves. Their popular Toy Story series of shorts saw a Christmas special in 2014, Toy Story That Time Forgot, creating a litany of items you could purchase while promoting the idea that children should play with toys and not video games. Their two Prep & Landing shows, one in 2009 and the sequel in 2011 filled the gap during lulls in Pixar releases. The company has also been running their Creating Disney Holiday Magic series, looking at how Disney's theme parks create the holidays. Audiences can enjoy watching how the hotels create life-size gingerbread houses, how the tree is planted on Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A, and how you should definitely book a Disney vacation for your next holiday season.

Now, this isn't to say these shows are inherently bad because of their connection to marketing and merchandise. These specials are entertaining and heartwarming. They do act as shows you can watch with your families and I've included many of these in my Christmas traditions. But it is important to be reminded of how these shows utilize Christmas' already ingrained sense of commercialism to promote more items. This is more an issue with the networks than the actual shows themselves (unless you're Disney). There's plenty of fun to be had hanging out with the Peanuts, I Love Lucy, or the Toy Story gang, just don't be surprised if you want a toy of your own afterwards.